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Dornbos Reviews...

Confessions of a First Time Drag Racer

By Doug Dornbos

I've approached drag racing much like I've approached music (I love it, I listen to it, but I don't play it) but after avidly following the sport for a couple of decades, it finally dawned on me that I really should be racing some of the time (yes, I should probably play an instrument, too). I made a commitment to myself to race one time this past summer and after a few false starts, followed through. Here are the particulars and my reflections on them.

Since I own a 1973 AMC Matador (258 C.I. inline 6, mostly stock) and am a member of NAMDRA, AMC's drag racing club, I decided to go to the AMC Nationals (drag race/car show/swap meet) at Cordova, IL. Actually, I had scheduled to go in '98 but something came up, so I really wanted to get there this year. I registered early and paid to race plus have a table at the swap meet. My car isn't a show car by any stretch of the word (it isn't a race car either, which is beside the point but probably the reason I didn't tell anybody at home I was going to race.)

The Matador had not been driven in 2 years and needed much work to be roadworthy. Living in the grips of procrastination, I had a lot to do the last 2 days and it didn't go smooth. Taking the car to the alignment shop, I was told that the front-end bushings were so bad as to not be able to hold an alignment but that it was probably relatively safe to drive for a couple thousand miles (the rest of the summer) the way it was. I was planning to rebuild the front end with polyurethane this winter so I wanted to hold off so I drove it "as is." I also had a bucket seat project going with the car and the way the new seats anchored into the floor didn't appear safe so I spent considerable time on making that proper. The final thing that needed changing was that the car had no sound system. I had an in dash am/fm/8-track player to install but really was out of time. I cobbled it in anyway and after doing some errands, pulled out of town 4 hours later than planned meaning I would arrive in Cordova at about an hour past dark.

I picked up my son (who was vacationing at my in-laws, 3 hours south of home) and we headed out. About 1.5 hours out, we merged from US 31 onto I-94 just north of Benton Harbor. It was a very windy day and the merge is from a southerly heading to a westerly one. While on the curve, I came up behind a semi and had to brake slightly. My car twitched badly. I thought, "Wow, that wind or the air off that semi is stronger than I thought". When I got on I-94 and accelerated, I realized my steering wheel had still been cocked about 90 degrees "to fight the wind" and only when I accelerated could I move it back to its rightful position for straight ahead driving. I backed off the gas and had to turn the wheel to keep going straight. I accelerated, and could straighten the wheel out. I'm now thinking "Those alignment guys had something off and didn't put it back together right". I gingerly pulled off at the next exit. 

After a quick inspection of the front end (in a Meijers parking lot) revealed nothing, I asked my son to drive away from me, and then drive straight towards me and when I gave the motion, stop. I was thinking I would be able to see the problem that way. But when he stepped on the gas to pull away from me, it about blew my mind when I saw the REAR axle shift about 8" in the wheel well! I had lost the front bolt from the bottom link of the 4-link rear suspension! Meijers didn't have a bolt so we limped to Lowes. We made multiple trips into Lowes (I now have a small "ALMOST the right size" bolt collection) to buy the bolt and a bottle jack (I left the two I already own at home) to help me move the back axle into position. We cleaned up our filthy selves at Burger King, and celebrated staying alive by wolfing down some burgers and fries.

The rest of the trip was relatively uneventful except that my valve cover leak was worse than I thought (on the exhaust side, of course!) and at every stop, I had to soak up the oil sitting in the wells on the edge of the head. When we got close to Cordova, something went against me and I got ill. Not really knowing if we were close to the track or not, we pulled off the road next to a cornfield where I went in a few rows and got rid of the problem. I figure I either killed a few stalks of corn or they were going to be the healthiest stalks in the field! As it turns out, we were only a mile or so from Cordova Dragway and we pulled in after midnight. 

We set up our tent and took a quick walk around the facility. Racing was done and all the track lights were out. It was my 15-year-old son's first visit to a drag strip. He went right to sleep but I couldn't. Finally, about 2 a.m. I dozed off only to be awakened at 3 a.m. by three guys talking loud out in front of the tent. My take on it was they were drunk so I hesitated to go out and ask them to be quiet however after about 20 minutes of listening to descriptions of whose bones they wanted to jump and why, I hoisted myself out of my sleeping bag, unzipped the tent, and wandered out to where they were to ask them to quiet down. Really, they were pretty nice about it considering the circumstances. On the way back to my tent, I thought "Dornbos, THAT was a stupid thing to do. You could've got your butt kicked!" I got back to sleep about four and since I was close to the road, I was awakened by traffic at six.

There was a heavy enough dew on the car when I got up so I could towel it off and have it look pretty good. The guy next to me got up, toweled off his AMX, and walked over to say good morning. Now in the light, I could see some of the cars around so I took a walk. This is a relatively small race and show, approx. 70 cars in each. The hype this year was that Car Craft was coming to do a feature on the race. Very cool for us AMC guys (it appeared in the Dec. 99 issue). I walked over, looked at the track, and thought about how bad I needed a cup of coffee. The kitchen was opening and they had a no-options breakfast for the amazing price of $4.95 so I went over and woke up my son and we went to eat. 

A point of note about the diner at Cordova is they have a drag chute up in the rafters. We wolfed down whatever the breakfast was (greasy) and went to check in and see where we could help. I ran the competitors list up to the tower guys and went back to the car to check the oil, check the rear suspension bolt, unload all the traveling stuff, and set up my swap meet table. I had a brief discussion with Jock Jocewicz about how great NAMDRA is treated by Cordova, they seem like great people. This all being done, I went to the staging lanes.

Having never had this car down the track before nor having ever bracket raced before, my thoughts were that I would make 3 test-and-tune passes, lose in the first round and go home with the experience of having raced. I told my son, "Hey, some of these guys do this every weekend and their cars are tricked out just for this so I really don't have a chance." My first pass at 10:03 a.m. was an 18.719 (71 m.p.h.) letting the transmission shift itself. My reaction time was a dismal 1.031. My second pass was 18.567 with me shifting at 4000 RPM. My reaction time was a much-improved .584 (what a difference leaving on the yellow makes!). My final test-and-tune pass was 18.553 with the trans doing it's own shifting again. My reaction time was .834. I made all three passes within a half-hour.

Since it really didn't seem to bother the ET. whether the trans or I shifted, I decided to just let the trans do it when I raced. I chose 18.55 as my dial-in only because it was the fastest ET. I had gone and I really didn't have any better game plan. It was at this point that I realized I didn't have any shoe polish so I had to sheepishly ask the AMX owner next to me if I could use his. I felt like a true beginner. I was in the 14.00-second and slower class (21 cars).

In the first round (which I had assumed would be my last), I did something very right totally by accident, I cut a .511 light! My opponent, a nice looking 1969 AMX driven by Gregg Seydel, dialed at 15.40 so had over 3 seconds to watch me go, long enough I guess for him to know I had cut a decent light. In his effort to match my light, he red-lighted which gave me the win. I was stunned. Gregg is the only guy I raced that day who I didn't converse with later in the day which I regret somewhat from a sportsmanship standpoint. I was standing right by him once too but it just didn't happen.

My second round, I cut a .571 light to my competitor's .587 and I ran .006 over my dial to my competitor's .015 over so I won my second round. (Another win against an AMX, now you I'm lovin' THAT!) The guy I raced, Brian Saunders, is a good guy with a nice car and good racing experience. I felt VERY fortunate to get past him. He bought a couple of 8-track tapes off my swap-meet table anyway.

My third round was weird for me. For one thing, I raced a 1979 Concord who was slower than me. I had yet to give someone else a head start so that was different. I was in the other lane from what I had been in the first 2 rounds although I had been in that lane once for test-n-tune. I cut a poor light, a .753 to my competitor's .604. After five passes all at 18.55 and slower, I ran an 18.502. My competitor however ran .11 below his dial so I won the round on a double breakout. I talked to the other driver, Alan Weinke, later in the day and asked him where he got his extra power. He seemed as surprised as I was about it. I'm starting to see where the weather guru's could gain an edge.

Now back in the staging lanes, there are only three cars left for the semis. There is a coin toss with the odd man getting the bye run and an easy entree' into the finals. I reach in my pocket and don't have a coin. Just then my son comes up and I beg a nickel off him. While he's fishing it out of his pocket, the two other guys flip and they both have heads. I said, "You know I'm lovin' this!" I flip a tails and make an 18.569 bye into the finals.

In the finals, I cut a terrible light (.668) and lost the race by .001 to the NAMDRA president, Jock Jocewicz in his 1972 Ambassador. Crossing the finish line that close to another car was a cool experience, having never had it before. By this round, I was looking up to see the foul indicator as I was going down the track so I knew neither of us had redlighted and I really wasn't sure who won until I got to the timing booth.

For some reason, the thrill of doing well never really grabbed me. I really can't say why but for one thing, other than my son, I didn't know anyone there so it seemed I was in the midst of strangers (which I was). I'm not used to being at the track without friends, so that was weird. Maybe I didn't "thrill to victory" because I realized that this was pure luck and had virtually nothing to do with my skill. Maybe because my car is so slow, I just didn't feel like I was legitimately racing (even though I understand the bracket race concept very well) and there just isn't a ton of inherent thrill in accelerating to expressway speed in 18+ seconds. Maybe my expectations were just out of line. 

I had to go back to my tent and scrounge around for the paperwork for the race to look up what I had won. I had so convinced myself that I wouldn't make it past round one that I never even considered prize money. When I realized I had won $200, that was very cool but I missed another $200 by .001 seconds and that bugged me! We hung out for the very low-key ("anybody that's got anything coming, come up and get in line") awards presentation and when I got my check, it was for $190 which I didn't question. NAMDRA later mailed me the $10 error with apologies. Also, I received a very nice 20" trophy that looks real good at my house. 

We had to be in Chicago for business the next morning, were running on little sleep, and my son, who couldn't drive, and is much more of a doer than a spectator, was bored, so we didn't stay for Cordova's regular night racing. (As a side note: my son was disappointed when I told him he couldn't ride along with me down the track. It had never dawned on me to discuss that with him before being there.)

When I called my family that night on the phone, my other son answered and when he asked how my day went, I told him I raced the Matador, went to the finals, and won a big trophy. He laughed and laughed and didn't really believe me. When I told my wife I went to the finals, won a big trophy and $200, she too laughed and laughed. She told me later that when she told my in-laws about it, they laughed and laughed too. My Mustang-loving friend also laughed when I told him (however he did have to admit that he had never won $200 racing any of his much cooler-than-mine cars). If nothing else, I guess it's good for a laugh. In all reality, my family and friends were very happy for me and I got a custom-made tee shirt from my dad-in-law a couple weeks later that says, "My other car is a Mean Green Matador".

After all was said and done, the greatest difference I could see between racing and spectating is the focus. I don't think I enjoyed watching any racing that day at all; I was too involved in my own gig. I did read the race results in the following NAMDRA newsletter closer than I ever had before (they misspelled my name in all places... vanity, vanity.) In any case, I am looking forward to both spectating AND racing next season.

Thanks for reading about my beginner racing experience. Next month, I'll have an article about ideas, rules, and sanctioning bodies, which is the kind of stuff that caused Bill Pratt and I to meet in the first place.

Doug Dornbos


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